RICHMOND — Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s order last month restoring the voting rights of 206,000 felons had an unintended consequence: It’s now easier for those ex-offenders to regain the right to own guns.
Before the order, felons who wanted to legally possess firearms first had to go through the process of having their civil rights reinstated, including the right to vote, to sit on a jury and to run for office.
That process — which involved submitting forms that were scrutinized by the secretary of the commonwealth’s staff, using the governor’s authority — is no longer in place.
Instead, felons who have completed their sentences can go straight to the step of petitioning the circuit court for firearm rights. Prosecutors review those petitions and can intervene if they believe a felon should continue to be barred from owning a weapon.
Days after McAuliffe (D) signed the April 22 voting rights order, which was strongly opposed by leading Republicans in the GOP-controlled legislature, Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson warned commonwealth’s attorneys of a potential increase in gun rights requests.
“The decision to restore firearms rights is solely up to the discretion of local court judges, based in large part on your decision on whether or not to oppose such petitions,” Thomasson wrote.
The situation flips the usual political script, with McAuliffe, a staunch gun-control advocate, potentially opening the door to more felons possessing guns, and pro-gun-rights Republicans who oppose his order decrying the possibility that those felons could have an easier time arming themselves.
“I would urge caution to circuit court judges to ensure that you’re not restoring rights to someone who has demonstrated willingness to use a firearm in a violent act,” said Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William), who has sponsored bills expanding gun rights.
McAuliffe said he hadn’t given much thought to how his order would affect felons seeking firearms. “My actions were about giving you the right to vote, to serve on a jury and run for political office,” he said recently. “My action, I didn’t think it had anything to do with gun rights. I stayed away from that.”
Civil court clerks say it’s too early to tell whether the number of petitions filed will spike in response to the order. But legislators and lawyers who focus on this work reported a marked increase in inquiries from felons interested in firearms ownership.
The incremental streamlining of the restoration of voting rights process began in 2013, when then-Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) ended the state’s policy of permanently disenfranchising all felons. Instead, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, ex-prisoners had to receive an individual rights restoration certificate before they could register to vote.
McAuliffe shortened from five years to three the waiting period for violent felons to apply for rights restoration after completing their sentences; eliminated the requirement that those felons write a letter to the governor explaining why their rights should be restored; and removed the requirement that felons pay court costs and fees associated with their efforts. He also shortened the application form from 13 pages to one page for violent felons; McDonnell had previously shortened it only for nonviolent felons.
But prosecutors say they still relied heavily on that first step in the process and lack the resources to do extensive research for each firearms request.
“That’s always been the main factor,” said Joel R. Branscom, the commonwealth’s attorney in the rural southwestern Virginia county of Botetourt. “Once the governor has weighed in, it’s been pretty regular [practice] for them to get their rights restored. That meant something.”
McAuliffe’s voting rights order stressed the “unforgiving stigmatization” of ex-offenders who are not permitted to vote, sit on juries or run for office, saying the policy systematically disenfranchises them — often along racial and socioeconomic lines. The administration says 46 percent of ex-offenders are African American, compared with a statewide population that is 19 percent black.
The disenfranchisement argument in the order, Branscom said, could “apply equally to the restoration of rights to bear arms.” He said the message he got from McAuliffe’s order is that “it’s wrong to deny” felons that right, unless there is a specific reason to do so.
Some libertarian-leaning proponents of gun ownership seem ready to push for ex-offenders to be able to own guns more easily. Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, said legislators should change the law to make firearms rights the same as voting rights. He said all nonviolent ex-offenders should have their firearms rights restored — but not those with violent crimes on their record.
“If you can’t trust them to have a gun, you shouldn’t be able to trust them to vote,” Van Cleave said. “You’re either a good citizen, or you’re not. Make up your mind.”
Gun-control advocate Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, says the effect of McAuliffe’s order on gun ownership should have been considered more carefully before the governor took action.
“We are concerned that this opens the door for potentially dangerous persons to get their firearms rights restored,” Horwitz said. “It is very important for the courts to understand the risk factors that are involved here.”
Earlier this year, McAuliffe trumpeted a compromise on gun laws that expanded the rights of concealed-carry permit holders in exchange for requiring domestic abusers to relinquish their guns. The National Rifle Association helped craft the deal. The group declined to comment on possible links between McAuliffe’s voting rights order and firearms restoration.
Lingamfelter, the Republican delegate, said the juxtaposition of the compromise on gun laws and the mass restoration of civil rights “just drips with irony.”
“Even if they don’t get their gun rights back, how many of them now will be able to sit on juries and be in judgment of other domestic abusers,” said Lingamfelter, who opposes McAuliffe’s order. “Will there be a sympathy factor?”
Attorneys for a man accused of killing a state police trooper in Dinwiddie County filed a motion this month to have felons whose civil rights were restored added to the pool of eligible jurors for his trial, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported Friday.
House Republicans say concern over the expansion of voting and other rights is one reason they have retained a lawyer to challenge McAuliffe’s action in court.
They accused the governor of being motivated by politics, trying add African American voters to the rolls to give a boost to his friend Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential front-runner. McAuliffe has denied the claim.
In the meantime, lawyers who focus on gun rights restoration say they are busier than usual. About two dozen clients have contacted Stafford attorney Jason Pelt on the issue in the past three weeks, Pelt said, compared with a typical pace of one or two a month.
For Pelt, a criminal defense lawyer and Marine veteran who believes in second chances, McAuliffe’s order is a big deal. “The most anti-gun governor in a long time in Virginia just made it incredibly easy for felons to get guns,” he said.